Numerous studies have shown that doing good is good for you. Some have even demonstrated a measurable correlation between volunteering and good health. Not only do volunteers live longer, they live better: Volunteering can promote a sense of well-being, bolster the immune system, reduce insomnia, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, help keep weight in check, raise energy levels, increase relaxation, and a lot of other cool stuff. Sounds like the fountain of youth, a miracle cure, and a happy pill all rolled into one. With this in mind, I’ve set out to volunteer for a different Los Angeles organization each week. I’ll write about the experience here. This week: Meals on Wheels West.
Joanna Vasquez has been the Director of Volunteers at Meals on Wheels West for over 20 years, and when I first call to discuss dropping in, I am struck by her enthusiasm. She speaks in a rich Bulgarian accent, and her voice sounds steeped in sincere delight at the prospect of my volunteering. It’s impossible not to smile into my cell as she tells me how excited she is, and how much she looks forward to our meeting. We set a date for the following Monday at 11 a.m., and she says she’ll match me with a volunteer to shadow.
I set to work learning about the umbrella group, Meals on Wheels Association of America, a member organization comprised mostly of senior nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels West, which provides nutritious meals to the homebound or disabled in Santa Monica, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, and Topanga. I learn that the concept can be traced back to Great Britain during World War II, when the Women’s Volunteer Service for Civil Defense responded to the Blitz by preparing and delivering meals to neighbors whose homes had been bombed, and who could therefore no longer cook for themselves. After the war, the U.S. began its own small home-delivered meal program in Philadelphia, in 1954.
Today, Meals on Wheels member programs throughout the country provide nutritious meals to the elderly, homebound, disabled, frail, or at-risk–services that significantly improve the quality of life and health of the individuals they serve. There’s a dark cloud on the horizon, though. The elderly population in the U.S. is ballooning: The Baby Boomers are about to turn 65, and America’s seniors age 85 and older are the most rapidly growing age group. Pretty scary when you consider that four out of ten Meals On Wheels programs have waiting lists, with some even facing bankruptcy.
I try not to think about this on Monday morning, as I make my way to the Meals on Wheels West headquarters in Santa Monica. Housed in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church by the sea, the Meals on Wheels West HQ is a neat, breezy office staffed by five employees including Rosemary Regalbuto–the Executive Director and the person responsible for bringing Joanna on board two decades ago.
When I arrive, I find a flurry of activity already taking place in the yard out back. Volunteers are organizing trays of meals and preparing for their routes. Joanna tells me that her volunteers are the “most special, wonderful people,” and introduces me to the person I’ll be accompanying: Mike Muson, a Venice resident who has been volunteering with Meals on Wheels West for the past couple of years. He reviews his list of deliveries, organizes his meals, and then we’re off to pack the car. Mike tells me that a friend turned him on to volunteering for Meals on Wheels, and that the minute he walked in and started he knew he’d made the right decision.
As we set out toward our first stop, he explains that he intentionally chose to volunteer on Mondays because it starts his week off on the right foot. Friendly and easygoing, Mike has a balanced, content energy about him. I ask him what kind of impact volunteering has had on his life, and he says that volunteering in general helps him keep his “life in balance and not get too bogged down in anything, not get too low when things are challenging or too high when things are great. It allows you to keep balance in your life, and keep a connection to parts of L.A., and this world that you wouldn’t necessarily come across otherwise.”
Having received some bad news the day before, I’m in need of balance and curious to chart my reaction to the two hours ahead of me.
We approach our first stop, the Santa Monica Towers. There are a few deliveries to make in the building, and Mike says that two of them are favorites of his.
“There are varying degrees of engagement,” he explains. “Some people just want their food and a little bit of conversation and that’s it, others will sit you down to chat and you have to work to find a way to get out.”
The first door we knock on belongs to Yvonne, a lovely woman who has classical music playing and speaks with a distinguished European accent. She is proper but quick to laugh, even as she tells us about the frustration in waiting for a walker to be delivered, and a botched cataract surgery.
“So you see how things can happen,” she says, describing the bungled procedure. “I was at the wrong moment on that bed.”
“But you survived and you’re looking good,” Mike offers, and they laugh.
We bid Yvonne adieu and set off for our next stop in the building, an eccentric and incredibly sweet Brit named Brenda, whose 15-year-old cat, Frou Frou, looks more like a miniature lion. He immediately comes over to share the attention that his master is getting.
Brenda insists that we come in and sit down. She tells us a hilarious story about how she had recently journeyed to the beach with a friend, and how everyone there had stared at her because she wore a bikini. She seems deliciously tickled and takes huge pleasure in telling us the story. I ask what the best thing about Meals on Wheels is, and she says, “It cheers me up, it’s fun and we have a lot to talk about, and I can’t go and get my own shopping so the meals are really good for me.”
After a few more scratches for the cat, and a few more laughs with Brenda, we’re off again, this time on a number of brief stops.
“A lot of times people use this service after they have some major surgery,” Mike explains as we go from room to room, bringing meals to happy recipients. “We’ve had people who have broken hips, or something where they’re homebound for a stretch, and then once they recover, they discontinue using Meals on Wheels.” Over the years there have even been a couple of people on Mike’s route whom he’s found fallen and trapped, and whose lives he’s saved. The fact that his Monday morning visit is often the first these people receive after a weekend alone is another reason why Mike chose to start his weeks this way.
The rest of our route takes us to private homes between Lincoln and 6th. As we drive from stop to stop, Mike tells me that the connection he builds with each of these people is what keeps him coming back.
“You know that they’re depending on you, and that it’s specifically you that they enjoy engaging with, so it really makes you want to come back and be a part of their lives.”
I learn that he also volunteers with the Los Angeles Mission, and at a public school one Saturday each month, reading to children.
“How do you find the time?” I ask, and he says that it’s kind of like exercise.
“A lot of times people don’t have the desire to go to the gym or work out because they feel tired. When they actually get there and go through a workout though, they feel more energy because they’re tuning up their body. In volunteering, you’re tuning up your mind and your spirit. You’re connecting to something that’s bigger than your world.”
“This kind of opportunity offers the chance to connect with somebody who deeply appreciates you and is anxiously awaiting your arrival,” Mike explains. “You can see the immediate results and impact of your action. It connects you to this universe, it connects you to your community, and it connects you to people who are in need of your help. It makes you feel valuable.”
Our two hours together begin to draw to a close, and we make one of our last stops to a woman named Gene, who has survived her entire family, and who lives behind this window. As we approach Gene’s door, Mike says that every time he visits her, she tells him how happy she is to be alive and how much she loves life. When we enter her tiny studio apartment, we find that Gene is still in bed, though it’s nearly one o’clock. She smiles hugely when we enter, revealing a number of missing teeth across the top of her mouth. Her eyes light up and she begins to talk a mile a minute as Mike approaches her bedside.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asks her, and she assures him that she’s feeling just fine.
“Why are you still in bed?” he inquires, and she cackles that it’s because “she’s lazy.”
All of this conversation doesn’t come easily. Gene suffers from some kind of extreme voice disorder. It could be anything: a side-effect of medication, a result of stroke, a Parkinsonian syndrome. Whatever it is, it makes speaking a bitch, but that doesn’t stop Gene. She’s so excited to have company that she goes on and on. Mike seems to understand most, if not all, of what Gene says, and he warmly encourages her, listening carefully and offering cheerful replies.
She tells us how beautiful it is outside, and gestures out her window. Mike compliments her view, and she agrees that it’s pretty great.
We stay with Gene for a while, and I am reluctant to leave when we do. For me, she crystallizes the whole experience of Meals on Wheels, and of service-based volunteering in general.
On the way back to the office, Mike echoes my thoughts, telling me that he wonders how anyone could worry about petty things when faced with someone like Gene, who has survived all of her family, who can hardly move and has immense trouble speaking, and yet is so joyful and free of self-pity.
Back at headquarters, Mike and I say goodbye, and I sit down to debrief with Joanna. I ask what she loves about Meals on Wheels, and her eyes widen.
“What is there not to love?” she replies. “Being with wonderful people, seeing how their lives change…” She trails off for a moment, then says, “When you start giving you get blessed twice as much and your life gets better. Give and give to others and your life will be blessed.”
If you would like to get involved with Meals on Wheels West, Joanna wants you. She says that volunteers are always needed, especially around the holidays. Routes are two hours long, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and volunteer hours are flexible–she won’t turn you away if you can’t make a weekly commitment. Once a week, once a month, once in a while: it’s all right by her. She also encourages local businesses to organize and send a different employee for an extended lunch-break each week.
Joanna Vasquez, Director of Volunteers at Meals on Wheels West: (310) 394-7558